Turkish President Abdullah Gul said neighboring Syria has reached a dead end and change is inevitable, but everything must be done to prevent the country from descending into civil war.
Turkey had been increasingly critical of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s repression of anti-government protests in which thousands have been killed.
“Syria is now at a dead end so change is inevitable,” Gul, who is on a state visit to Britain and is expected to meet Prime Minister David Cameron later on Tuesday, told the Guardian newspaper in an interview.
“But we don’t believe the right way to create change is through external intervention. The people must make that change,” he said. “Civil war is not something that anyone would want to see happen. Everything must be done to prevent it. It is very dangerous.”
Britain has condemned Assad’s actions as “appalling and unacceptable” and held talks on Monday with representatives of Syrian opposition groups, according to Reuters.
Gul told the Guardian he had spoken to Assad regularly until a few months ago and advised him to allow free elections, free political prisoners and announce a clear timetable for reforms.
“It’s quite too late for that sort of thing now,” he told the newspaper. “He seems to have opted for a different route. And frankly we do not have any more trust in him.”
Gunmen wounded two Turks on Monday when they opened fire on a convoy of Turkish buses inside Syria carrying pilgrims returning from the Hajj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia, Turkish media reported.
“There was a need for deep-rooted reform,” Gul said. “They could not carry on as they were forever. In the end, it would either be the people or some sort of external interference that would bring change. Turkey now is a source of inspiration to many of these countries.”
Syria is likely to dominate Gul’s UK state visit, the first by a Turkish president in 23 years.
Meanwhile, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Tuesday called on his former ally Assad to step down.
“Quit power before more blood is shed... for the peace of your people, your region and your country,” Erdogan told lawmakers from his AK party.
Erdogan warned Syrian President Assad on Monday that his days as leader were numbered and he cannot remain in power indefinitely through military force, according to AFP.
After reports that two buses carrying Turkish pilgrims came under attack in Syria, Erdogan said his one-time ally’s defiant refusal to end the crackdown on protesters had increased the prospects of foreign intervention.
Siding with Western powers, Erdogan’s conservative Islamist-rooted government has threatened economic sanctions and used ever more virulent verbal attacks against Damascus.
“We are opposed to any unilateral initiative or foreign intervention to speed up regime change” in Syria, a Turkish government official told AFP, but did not rule out “additional measures” to protect civilians if the regime of President Assad resorted to “massive atrocities.”
Turkey, which has long criticized Syria for its harsh crackdown on dissent is considering a buffer zone on its border to protect civilians fleeing the troubled country, experts say.
In this case the Turkish army could create a buffer zone on the border between the two countries to avoid a mass influx from areas close to Turkey, like the northern city of Aleppo, wrote Radikal newspaper commentator Murat Yetkin.
But Turkish diplomats insist that such a step, should it be taken, would be “purely humanitarian.”
According to Robert Fisk of the British newspaper Independent, Damascus is concerned that a risk buffer could be seen as a pretext by Syrian militias to act.
Syria fears that such zones could be turned into pockets of resistance against the Assad regime, he told the Vatan newspaper in Istanbul after visiting the country which has been rocked by protests since early this year.
Turkey has accommodated about 7,000 opponents of Assad’s regime in its Hatay province which borders Syria, after they fled the violence.
Among them is Riad al-Asaad, a Syrian army colonel who heads a group of army deserters that carries out attacks inside Syria.
Ankara has distanced itself from the group but has offered a sanctuary to the broad-based opposition Syrian National Councils.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has repeatedly said that an exodus of refugees and a civil war on Turkey’s doorstep would be a nightmare scenario.
“It is practically sure that the regime of Bashar al-Assad is faltering. All assessments are made on the basis of this assumption. The faster the regime falls the better for Turkey,” said Hurriyet editorialist Sedat Ergin, describing the prevailing sentiment in the foreign ministry in Ankara.
Some analysts, however, warn against Turkey’s hawkish position.
“Why this zealousness? Turkey should not establish a buffer zone,” said military analyst Armagan Kuloglu, who accuses Ankara of tempting Damascus to play the Kurdish card and give free rein to the separatist PKK.
Deadly clashes between the PKK, or Kurdistan Workers’ Party, and Turkey’s army, a common phenomenon over the past decade, have escalated since mid-2011.
Syria has in the past harbored PKK fighters and occasionally hinted that it might revive that support.
“Cross-border raids might be necessary if there were attacks from safe havens,” Gul told the Guardian, but added: “I don’t think the Syrian government would make that kind of mistake.”
Turkey, like Iraq, Iran and Syria, is home to a large Kurdish minority.
In 1998, Turkey had threatened Syria with war if it continued to grant asylum to PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, who was then wanted by Turkish authorities.
Ocalan was eventually arrested and jailed for life in 1999.
Listed as a terrorist organization by Turkey and much of the international community, the PKK took up arms for Kurdish independence in southeastern Turkey in 1984, sparking a conflict that has claimed some 45,000 lives.